Essay

The Struggle to Write

“I became a poet because I became a revolutionary”

by Minnie Bruce Pratt
The Struggle to Write

The Sound of One Fork was my first book of poetry, published in 1981. These poems and I emerged together from the women’s liberation and lesbian/gay liberation movements of the 1970s.

I had written poetry in college but had stopped writing when, barely turned 20, I had married a poet in 1966. Like so many other women of my generation, I married the person I wanted to be—and then had my world turned upside down when I had two children in quick succession, 18 months apart.

At the same time, while in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, I got to know feminists and lesbians involved in early women’s liberation in Durham and Chapel Hill—a movement then developing from both the anti–Vietnam war movement and the Black civil rights movement.

The range of women’s organizing was wide—from forming Marxist study groups to publishing nonsexist children’s literature, from fighting for pay equity in university teaching positions to doing support work for prisoner liberation and for Joann Little—a Black woman who had defended herself, killing a prison guard who attempted to rape her.

In this productive ferment, I began reading feminist theory and writing short book reviews for a local movement publication, the Female Liberation Newsletter—begun in 1969 and sold at a women’s liberation lit table for two cents in mimeo.

And then I began to write poetry again in 1975, when I fell in love with another woman. I returned to poetry not because I had “become a lesbian”—but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation. The sensual details of life are the raw materials of a poet—and with that falling-in-love I was able to return to living fully in my own fleshly self. 

By 1979 the Female Liberation Newsletter had evolved into Feminary, first a quarterly feminist community magazine and then a literary publication self-described as a “feminist journal for the South emphasizing lesbian visions,” which had both a regional and a national readership. That year, while living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I became part of the Feminary editorial collective based in Durham. Others in the collective during the time I was a member were Susan Ballinger, Eleanor Holland, Helen Langa, Deborah Giddens, Raymina Y. Mays, Mab Segrest, Cris South, and Aida Wakil.

We were a group of anti-racist, anti-imperialist Southern lesbians—Black, white, Jewish, Arab. All of us had to work for our living—some held blue-collar and some white-collar jobs—and we struggled as explicitly with issues of class inequality as we did with racism, especially in the matrix of the U.S. South, and with anti-Semitism, toward both Arabs and Jews.

Inspired by the U.S. Women in Print Movement, different members of our collective learned all aspects of book production—from editing, page design, and layout to burning text into the metal plates required by our old printing press; from the actual printing to hand-collating, stapling, and trimming the magazines. We worked with huge, clumsy equipment borrowed from Lollipop Power, a feminist press that published nonsexist children’s books. And when we finally held the copies of the printed journal in our hands, then we had to tackle distribution.

The Women in Print Movement had emerged in the 1960s as a countrywide effort to make the ideas and art of women’s liberation, including lesbian lives, available to the widest possible audience. In a brief online history of the movement, Mev Miller says: “Women in Print was a strategy to build solidarity and to create actions for change.” The movement included writing retreats and groups, newsletters, magazines, newspapers, political and literary journals, book publishing, bookstores, distribution networks, and national conferences taking up practical and theoretical issues.

This larger movement developed both consciousness and skills. I, along with others, began to make our own books in that collective context. When I published The Sound of One Fork in 1981, the illustrations were drawn by local artist Sue Sneddon, the printing was done by Feminary collective member Cris South, and the poems were written, typed, and then burned onto the printing plates by me.

By that time my children were 10 and 12 years old. When I had come out as a lesbian, I lost custody of them to their father. (I later wrote about this struggle in the poems of Crime against Nature.)

The lightning bolt of that loss etched into me an indelible understanding of the economic and political system I lived inside. I was living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at the time—where de facto segregation was enforced by the white majority, where the country-club set still excluded people who were Jewish, and where the state sodomy laws declared any lover of her (or his) own sex to not only be committing a “crime against nature” but also a potential felon.

I struggled to stay connected to my children, even as their father moved them hundreds of miles away. My favorite memory from making The Sound of One Fork is how I stood next to my two sons, facing a long counter workspace in the cavernous Lollipop Power warehouse. We worked together collating and stapling the pages of the book, then took turns putting stacks of books into the trimmer and swinging its giant, guillotine-like arms.

Over the next two years, I got in my little red Volkswagen Bug and drove myself all over the South—to see my children in Kentucky, and to do readings from this first book of poetry. In 1983 I visited 10 cities in 14 days. I read from my work in the homes of lesbians in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis, Tennessee; at a conference on violence against women in Little Rock, and at a women’s cultural center in Fayetteville, Arkansas; at an MCC church in Jackson, Mississippi; at an abortion clinic in New Orleans; for college students in English and women’s studies at universities in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa and at Lodestar, the first women’s bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama.

My travels were not unusual. All over the United States, women in general, and lesbians in particular, were engaging in a creative whirlwind of political and cultural work.

And the Women in Print Movement was not unique—all political liberation movements must bring forward suppressed ideas and often develop cultural, literary, and journalistic organizations. The Women in Print Movement was necessary because, not surprisingly, national mainstream publishing corporations were not interested in encouraging independent women’s liberation or lesbian grass-roots organizing through germination and distribution of our work.

Locally, when we produced art and writing that directly addressed certain crucial issues—sexuality, women’s bodies, and our health—the companies that we paid to print our journals or newsletters frequently refused to do so once they saw our content and politics—sometimes claiming it was “pornographic,” sometimes because company owners held to patriarchal domination and so deemed us “unnatural women.”

These were not isolated, individual acts of bigotry, but the continuation of limits on public communication that had been accelerated by the passage of U.S. federal and state laws linked to the 1873 Comstock Act. That federal legislation made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” material through the U.S. mail. Prohibited items included contraceptive devices, any information on abortion or prevention of pregnancy, and, of course, any materials or devices related to same-sex/gender love.

The provisions of the 1873 “Comstock laws” were still in effect in 1954 when an issue of the gay magazine One was seized from the U.S. mail in Los Angeles. The U.S. Post Office and the FBI used the authority of the Comstock Act to try to shut down the magazine, a publication that had spun off from an early gay rights group, the Mattachine Society. One official reason given for the censorship? A short story “Sappho Remembered,” condemned as “cheap pornography,” that described a lesbian woman’s affection for another woman.

The subsequent court battle for One magazine, won by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT+) organizing, culminated in the 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted free press rights to discussions about “homosexuality” for the first time.

It was this ruling that won the Feminary collective the right to send our laboriously assembled literary journal out through the U.S. mail—that enabled us to do more than hand-carry copies to our readers.

But the bigotry that had generated the Comstock laws was still firmly in place in other legal and social structures in the 1970s. For instance, “crime against nature” statutes continued to be on the books in two-thirds of the U.S. states, criminalizing LGBT+ people, our lives, and our loves. My husband used the anti-sodomy laws in North Carolina in 1975 to take my children away, arguing that as a lesbian, I was engaging in illegal, felonious behavior. My “unorthodox” belief in the equality of women within heterosexual marriage—seen as an attack on the “role of the father in the family”—was the final proof I was an “unfit mother.”

So when Women in Print activists Nancy Blood, Leslie Kahn, and others in Durham, North Carolina, decided to expand the Female Liberation Newsletter into Feminary, a magazine, in the mid-1970s, they were not simply launching a literary or journalistic project. They were organizing against an entrenched anti-woman, anti-lesbian, anti-sexual current that raged, deeply embedded, in all economic and social structures in the United States.

They chose the name for the magazine from a passage in Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères. The women in that novel had small books called feminaries, made of pages of text and of blank pages where the women wrote as they pleased.

In Wittig’s novel, several women say to a “great gathering of women”: “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. . . . You say you have lost all recollection of it. . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

What kind of woman, what kind of person is she who has not been imagined yet? We knew only—from memory and scraps of story and flimsy pages—that we were the daughters of the great mass liberation movements of the United States in the 20th century. We knew that living on within us were the people who had fought the labor union battles of the ’30s, the people who shaped the Black civil rights and other national liberation movements of the ’50s and ’60s, the anti–Vietnam war and women’s liberation movements of the ’60s and ’70s.

We were creating in a space that had been cleared by these people, those struggles, a space into which we were writing our lives and histories.

And we knew also that there was a time, almost within living memory, when some women’s grandmothers’ mothers were enslaved, and some were not. We asked ourselves, what does it mean to recover memory and history under these circumstances? We knew that anti-racist work and writing, political struggle and art, were inextricably intertwined.

In 1980, in response to an interviewer asking about my “lesbian aesthetics,” I answered:

I started writing poetry again because I became a lesbian and a feminist and because I came to see, to understand, the need for a radical, transformative change in the human world I live in. I became a poet because I became a revolutionary, and I have always felt that my writing was only one part of my work, no more or less important than starting a C-R [consciousness-raising] group on racism and feminism, or marching by the Washington Monument for lesbian rights, or any one of the actions that I do. . . .

In so far as theory about revolutionary poetics, the only person that I’ve read that has said anything that helps or confirms my ideas [is] Frantz Fanon—a Black revolutionary [who was part of the anti-colonial Algerian struggle against France]. . . . He says that as a people becomes less colonized, their writers produce a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature. The writer becomes an “awakener of the people.” He says, “During this phase a great many men and women who up till then would never have thought of producing a literary work, now that they find themselves in exceptional circumstances—in prison, with the Maquis, or on the eve of their execution—feel the need to speak . . . to compose the sentence which expresses the heart of the people. . . .” In speaking of poetic form Fanon says, “The present is no longer turned on itself but spread out for all to see.”

My heart resonated to the hope and resistance in Fanon’s words as I struggled to survive the loss of my children, the criminalization of my sexuality, and the rejection by my family. I wrote in 1980 that Fanon’s words were “very true of my feeling of urgency and immediacy in beginning to write again.” As a white Southern-born woman working to become an anti-racist, I grasped in my deepest self the necessity to act in conscious solidarity with liberation struggles other than my own.

I was coming to consciousness in a century when worldwide liberation movements of colonized peoples, from Algeria to South Africa, from India to the Philippines, were fighting to free their countries. These movements infused other liberation struggles with hope and new ideas, and intertwined the issues of national oppression and racism, oppression because of gender and sexuality, and class inequality. Graphics collectives in U.S. women’s liberation movement made “Women hold up half the sky” posters in solidarity with the women of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), formed in New York City immediately after the Stonewall uprising in 1969, named itself in solidarity with that same anti-colonial struggle.

These and other struggles have shaped my path and my poetry. I have expanded the understanding of the link between my life, my poetry, and my body—my woman’s body, my lesbian body—and the bodies and lives of other people, other peoples.

And now, every day, I continue to work to know what it will take to have “a radical, transformative change” in this world, to understand the deeply material basis for a socialist revolution that can overthrow capitalism and the oppressions kept in place by that economic system—and to act in the struggle for that change—to act and to write as a poet.

*

“Afterword” by Julie R. Enszer

In 1981, The Sound of One Fork was a small object, made with great care and attention. Minnie Bruce Pratt labored over each word, every line in the poems. The pages were typeset by hand. Pratt selected the paper for each of the four printings with attention to quality and the experience it would bring to readers. She hand-cut each page, collated each book, then staple-bound them. She sold most copies herself, hand to hand, person to person.

Today, The Sound of One Fork is a small digital file, to download and open on your own computer or e-reader. It evokes the physical experience of paper through digital scans of the original pages. The Sound of One Fork reminds us: poetry and publishing straddle multiple worlds. These worlds are changing constantly. Words move from handwritten pages to printed pages to glimmering screens and back again. Amid these changes, our work is to make: make meaning, make beauty, make books, make change, make chapbooks, make files, make lines, make images, and, of course, make words.

The Sound of One Fork was originally published by Night Heron Press of Durham, North Carolina, in 1981. It was Minnie Bruce Pratt’s first chapbook of poetry. In total, four editions of the chapbook were printed, each edition with 500 copies. Thirty years later, as the Lesbian Poetry Archive rereleases Pratt’s The Sound of One Fork in a free electronic edition, the book represents a vibrant part of the history of lesbian print culture and helps us to understand how poetry publishing has changed.

At the time of The Sound of One Fork’s first publication, lesbian-feminists published their poems in journals, books, and chapbooks. Some of these books were published individually by authors such as Wendy Stevens, who published I Am Not a Careful Poet herself from her Washington, D.C., home; Chocolate Waters, a member of the Big Mama Rag collective in Denver, Colorado, who published To the Man Reporter from the Denver Post (1975), Take Me Like a Photograph (1977), and Charting New Waters (1980); Susan Wood-Thompson, who published her first and only book of poetry, Crazy Quilt, under the imprint Crown Books; Elsa Gidlow, who published her work through Druid Height Press; Tee Corinne, who published through Pearlchild Press between 1984 and 2003; Susan Sherman, who published through Two & Two Press; and Irena Klepfisz, who reprinted her first collection under the imprint Piecework Press. In addition to publishing work independently, many lesbians published poetry through small, woman-run presses like Out & Out Books, Long Haul Press, Persephone Press, Women’s Press Collective, and Violet Press. A variety of feminist presses flourished during the 1970s and 1980s, publishing not only poetry but also a range of books, some of which became iconic contributions to the women’s liberation movement.

Many of these publishers used feminist print shops such as Tower Press in New York City, Maegara Press in Massachusetts, the Iowa City Women’s Press, and Jackrabbit Press in Eugene, Oregon, to print their books. The growing number of feminist bookstores in cities, towns, and hamlets throughout the United States delivered an eager audience for lesbian-feminist small press books. These women created literary communities, and these literary communities supported and nurtured writers in all phases of the creative process, from the creation of poems, stories, and essays to circulation of the works to readers. Lesbian-feminists built these literary communities not only to publish their work but also to build an alternate, woman-centered economy. This woman-owned and woman-operated economy expressed the social and political values of feminism, and it provided economic support to writers, artists, activists, book publishers, and booksellers.

Today, publishing has changed dramatically. The number of feminist bookstores in the United States has dwindled; at last count there are less than a dozen feminist bookstores (if you live near one, be sure to support it by buying books!), and there are only a handful of feminist periodicals, including CALYX, which just celebrated its 35th anniversary; Room Magazine in Vancouver, Canada; and Sinister Wisdom. Although the number of feminist publishers has dwindled, venerable presses such as The Feminist Press, Cleis, and Seal continue their important work today, and newer presses like Switchback Books, Kore Press, and Perugia Press have joined them.

Understanding this history of lesbian-feminist publishing can help illuminate recent conversations about small press publishing’s survival—the controversy around Blazevox Books, in particular, comes to mind—and vanity publishing or cooperative publishing more generally. During the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian-feminists banded together to publish their work. In addition to Pratt’s The Sound of One Fork, Night Heron Press published Mab Segrest’s chapbook Living in a House I Do Not Own. Night Heron Press was a collective of three lesbian-feminists: Pratt, Segrest, and Cris South, a novelist and printer. Together, the three published two chapbooks and then worked, individually and collectively, to distribute and promote them. Their work is not unlike the activities of other poets and writers in publishing, including Djuna Barnes, who self-published the first edition of The Ladies Almanack; Sylvia Beach, who first published James Joyce’s Ulysses; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Today, self-publishing, collaborative publishing, cooperative publishing, and publishing through author collectives continue to thrive through presses such as Dusie, Washington Writer’s Publishing House, Alice James Books, Sixteen Rivers Press, and, yes, Blazevox Books.

There is not one publishing model for bringing poetry into the lives of readers, of course. Writing and publishing are dynamic systems in which people negotiate a wide array of social, political, and economic opportunities and constraints. Publishing changes with new technologies, variable market conditions, and broad social and economic trends in the United States.

Reading Minnie Bruce Pratt’s The Sound of One Fork in 2011 reminds us of the timeliness of her poems and of the importance of the material conditions in which they were published. The Sound of One Fork demonstrates the nexus between the material, including social, political, and economic environments, and the aesthetic. Pratt published The Sound of One Fork with her labor and with the assistance of her children, her friends, and her comrades. Between 1981 and 1989, she sold nearly 2,000 copies of the chapbook, earning a modest, though not insignificant, amount of money. The Sound of One Fork also helped Pratt secure speaking engagements and teaching opportunities to continue her life as a poet. For these reasons, I have worked with her to create an electronic edition of The Sound of One Fork. The e-book, with a new foreword by the author, is a free, downloadable PDF file. It is the first e-book published on the Lesbian Poetry Archive (www.LesbianPoetryArchive.org), where I hope to publish a series of reissued chapbooks by lesbian-feminist poets and writers.

The electronic edition of The Sound of One Fork brings Pratt’s early poems to new readers. Finding new readers for poetry is important, but it isn’t enough. In addition to readers, poets and publishers need to transform their labor into means of economic support to have the time and resources to continue their creative and artistic work.


 

 

Originally Published: December 14, 2011

COMMENTS (6)

On December 21, 2011 at 7:52am Mir Husayn wrote:
Excellent essay. Using language to bring about revolution in women's liberation I'm afraid imitates the institution of a new religion based upon a WRITTEN scripture. To vindicate revolution means to bring down the old idols of European rationality through the stimulation of new feelings found in psychedelic experience, see for example Dr Stanislav Grof,

Thanks

On December 21, 2011 at 10:22am Paul W. wrote:
You chose yourself over your children, that's one simple truth here. The sense you generate is becoming lesbian, and the stigma it carried, were central in the "loss" of your children. The elaborate things we get ourselves, and others, to believe. Imagine if you had put the passion you describe for attaining equal standing for lesbians into finding a way to stay with your family for another decade until your kids were grown up. Americans seem to savor the idea that "falling in love" with someone else is good enough reason to ditch your family. I don't make these comments to condemn you, I can hardly imagine the suffering you've endured being away from your kids. Instead, I comment to encourage readers to ask ourselves what is really most important to us before we act. To realize we have a responsibility to our children that supersedes our own desires - after all, they didn't ask to become our children. We brought them into the world and said to them, "little one, you're are safe with me."

Let love rule.

On December 21, 2011 at 2:05pm Phil Sheehan wrote:
Pratt's essay, in my opinion, is brave, intelligent, and interesting. Paul W. offers no comment on the essay, only on the writer. After accusing Pratt of choosing "yourself over your children," and citing a "reason to ditch your family," he says he does not want to condemn her.

Sorry, Paul, you can't have it both ways. Show courage in your conviction; acknowledge your stance. But then, the sanctimonious among us often assume their point of view is clear, direct, and unassailable. "Nothing personal, and I respect you as a human being, but you really ought to be stoned." Stoned, you may say, not as punishment but as a lesson for others.

Mind, Paul, I do not condemn you. However, I do urge on you a bit more care in your posts. The writing is -- let us beat about no bushes here -- the writing is careless and the syntax sketchy. If you make no other change, at least find a literate person to proof-read your material before sending it to an editor.

On December 23, 2011 at 5:22am Apples wrote:
Dear Paul:

Are you reading an edited version of Minnie Pratt's essay, cordially censored by the same people who seized the "One" magazine in 1954? You're right, in blindness, love rules.

Refer to the Comstock Act, in the eyes of that law, Minnie and other LGBT-identified persons were not to be recognized as human beings based on their sexual orientation. Based on the Comstock interpretation, being LGBT-identified was a sustention for felonious behaviour. The court was able to strip Minnie of her relation to her children, she was no longer a mother - Comstock had discounted nature. You are right and nearly getting there - you "can hardly imagine" what Pratt went through, if only you will imagine less and see more. Why should a woman forgo her fundamental rights as a human being when she realizes she finds love in being with another woman? Why should she live to suffer in being without her natural love? Cheers to loves in struggle and the social movements that great love brings about! To Minnie for having found her love and was brave to challenge the stoic rules instilled in her time. Cheers to fighting for a completeness of being, as a woman, as a human being. Her sons will grow up to understand the contribution their mother made to society through the power of words. At a time that most people were willing to be ignorant, she gave up the economic security provided by a patriarchal marriage to fight for fundamental human rights of the marginalized – the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals.

Love Persists.

On December 30, 2011 at 12:24pm mc wrote:
paul w is right.

children come first. teach them to be revolutionaries. i do not sympathize with minnie at all. she made an unethical choice based on selfishness. my aunt who is my best friend, who is lesbian, would never ever deprive children of a mother's presence which is more important than puffed-up 1970's college-radical cliches:

she writes: "I was coming to consciousness in a century when worldwide liberation movements of colonized peoples, from Algeria to South Africa, from India to the Philippines, were fighting to free their countries."

minnie pratt, saving the world, one chapbook at a time. but here is the biological truth women forget: your body is not your own when you're a mother. the mother-body is the children's. this sounds more like the vampire complex: sacrifice the young so you can stay young... be a hip college radical instead of a responsible member of a family, gay or not.

On January 4, 2012 at 10:33am Paul W wrote:
Apples - you ask, "Why should a woman forgo her fundamental rights as a human being when she realizes she finds love in being with another woman? Why should she live to suffer in being without her natural love?"
I presented an answer in my original post. And what about the "fundamental human rights" of her children? Did they deserve to "live to suffer in being without" the "natural love" of their mother?

Phil Sheehan - yup, your rite, I cant proofread for beens. Please consider that I was posting a quick comment, not writing an essay. Nonetheless, I will try to be more careful.

I am "sanctimonious," eh? I'd be willing to bet plenty of folks reading these comments will find your snide, condescending mockery to be quite hypocritical itself.

I'll admit I can trend toward dogma. Honestly, I meant no harm to the author, her choice was made long ago and the costs have many times been accounted and paid. But the crux of matter here is that the author said she "fell in love" with another person other than her husband. Love is mystical no doubt, but romance doesn't happen in a vacuum - we make ourselves available to such instances. People who stay in a marriage, gay or not, willfully choose not to be involved other people, it doesn't just happen by magic. We meet attractive people all the time, our response to them is not simply a matter of some inexplicable chemistry.

The author seems to suggest the situation of losing her children was thrust upon her. I just disagree, I feel like when the moment comes we have a choice, regardless of the gender of the attractive, compelling, absorbing (...pick your impulsive adjective) person we've met. We can go with them, or stay at home; and when we've taken on the responsibility of having kids then decision should be axiomatic - they come first.

The exception would be if the situation involves abuse, and none is mentioned by the author. To me the author made a mistake. And, having a child myself, I can hardly imagine the pain it brought her to be away from her own. If anything, I feel sadness for the author, not the urge to organize a public stoning; much to your disappointment apparently.
Paul

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 Minnie Bruce  Pratt

Biography

Minnie Bruce Pratt is recognized as an eminent poet in the United States. In addition to receiving acclaim for her verse, Pratt is acknowledged as an essayist, activist, lesbian-feminist, and educator. By chronicling her existence in poetry and prose, Pratt has explored themes reflecting the particularities of her life. She has surveyed her Southern, middle-class upbringing, her ten-year marriage and strained divorce, her battle . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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